Freedoms and loyalties

2011-04-05

in Law, Politics, The environment

Modern political life is complicated, in terms of the obligations and allegiances people possess. For instance, it is entirely sensible to say that a person has simultaneous and differing obligations toward family, friends, co-workers, fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, and even all of nature. These obligations can be contradictory. For instance, one’s family might be best served by choices that would harm fellow citizens or humanity as a whole.

There is an important distinction between freedoms in the abstract and freedoms in practice. For instance, one might have the right to legal counsel but be financially unable to secure adequate representation (especially in civil matters). Similarly, the most fundamental of abstract freedoms – sovereignty over one’s own mind and body – are frequently interfered with by states. Despite that interference, however, I think the logic underlying them is sound. What happens to a person’s body and mind should be up to that person. If another person or a government forces something upon you without your informed consent, they have violated important rights, even if they were trying to do good. That’s not an assertion of the fundamental validity of rights, but rather part of a utilitarian calculus. It’s simply the case that a world where the fundamental rights of individuals are respected is better than a world in which they are violated and ignored. It’s the collectivity of outcomes that really matters, but the collectivity is often served best by treating all individuals decently.

It seems to me that our highest loyalty should be to humanity as a whole, or perhaps to the collection of all species with a reasonably rich mental life. It is impossible to behave unethically toward an inanimate object. Crushing a rock to powder can only be a problem if, in so doing, you negatively affect the mental lives of thinking beings. At the same time, there are many smaller groups of humans that demand and frequency receive loyalty, often manifested in behaviours that harm humanity as a whole.

There are clear-cut examples of this: if you are in the army and ordered to use biological weapons against a civilian population, you have been placed in a situation where someone is asserting that your loyalty to them should trump the concern you have for other living beings. In such circumstances, it seems admirable to refuse by asserting the greater importance of loyalty to humanity compared with loyalty to your army or loyalty to your country.

Ultimately, we are all in a complicated ethical position. We have sovereignty over our bodies and minds, but we never have individual security. We are all vulnerable to the will of others and, in cases where it contradicts our own will, we do not have the power to resist the whole world. We will also frequently be punished for obeying higher loyalties rather than lower ones, partly because an important way through which lower loyalties are maintained in the general population is by punishing those that violate them (though consent accompanies coercion in most systems of control).

On the basis of our particular combination of capabilities and options, all we can do is try to behave in the way that best respects our ethical obligations, such as they can be determined on the basis of determined and selfless examination.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

alena April 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Many of us have freedom over our bodies and minds, but countless others do not. The interesting book that you sent me (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) amply demonstrates that many people do not have either. Henrietta Lacks ‘ cells were taken from her by a doctor without her consent and have since been grown to add up to 50 million metric tons of cancer cells that can be found in hospitals and laboratories around the world today. It could be argued that her cells have contributed hugely to medical research and thus, the action of the doctor is justifiable. Other examples from the book are less positive. For example, in the Tuskegee syphilis study which started in the 30’s, 100’s of African-American men with syphilis were recruited to study how syphilis killed from infection to death. The researchers watched them die a slow, painful and often preventable death. Similarly, to stop black women from reproducing, doctors performed the so-called Mississippi Appendectomies which were in fact unnecessary hysterectomies. These procedures gave young doctors a chance to “practice the procedure.” There are countless other examples of mental patients used in experiments involuntarily, as well as bodies of girls and women sold into the sex trade. Looking at those examples, we are indeed lucky to have so much control over our bodies and minds. We must try to use them to take actions to benefit humanity in any way we can.

. March 25, 2013 at 9:16 pm

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